Films capturing mingei folk craft movement enter digital era

© Marty Gross Film Productions Inc.
An image from “Trip to Japan,” filmed by Bernard Leach, showing Leach, center, and Shoji Hamada, far left

Old footage of the dawn of the mingei folk craft movement in Japan has found its way into the practiced hands of a Canadian film artist who is heading up a project to digitize and preserve the works and make them available to the public. The mingei movement, started by prominent thinker Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961), who is also known as Soetsu Yanagi, places value on the beauty of everyday tools made by ordinary craftspeople.

The films in question were shot by British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979), who made friends with Yanagi and other pioneers of the movement. The preservation project is expected to maintain the films as valuable records of the movement’s activities and to allow for their more wide-spread use.

A woman in farm clothes expertly draws flower patterns with a brush on an earthenware piece. Her hands moves efficiently, without hesitation. She looks up from her work and smiles shyly at the camera.

This scene appears in a film that was screened at an event held in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, in July.

The film was shot by Leach in Japan in the 1930s as he visited kilns for producing everyday items in Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, among other locations. Leach’s 16mm films are getting their much needed restoration and digital remastering under the care of Canadian film artist Marty Gross.

Although cameras for filming were precious commodities at the time, Leach was fortunate enough to acquire one before coming to Japan, where he was able to shoot the films, Gross says.

Gross also asserts that works of art are not to be made but born out of everyday life.

The screening event was organized by Genjiro Okura, a performer of the kotsuzumi hand drum, used in noh theater, and a living national treasure. Okura served as a facilitator at the event, while Gross provided commentary.

The film screened at the event vividly depicts the rustic charm of a rural city’s scenes and people before World War II. It also captures a major artist at work in Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), a proponent of the mingei movement who was later designated a living national treasure.

Narration for the film is provided by an interview conducted with Leach where he reminisces about the past.

Gross is highly knowledgeable on the subject of Japanese fine and performing arts, and he was entrusted with Leach’s films by the man himself in the 1970s while in the process of producing films about ceramics and related fields.

© Marty Gross Film Productions Inc.
Marty Gross during film restoration work

Gross is currently an active participant in the Mingei Film Archive Project for collecting and preserving films documenting the mingei movement that started in the Taisho era (1912-1926).

He receives films from those sympathetic to his activities who own the copyrights, and conducts interviews with people involved in the movement. The screening event also featured short films about Tsuboya ware from Okinawa Prefecture and Onta ware from Oita Prefecture.

Leach showed an interest in a diverse range of Japanese crafts, not only ceramics but also Japanese washi paper and dyeing, just to name a few. Digitization is urgently needed for his films, which are easily damaged due to their age.

The total screening time for the films Gross currently has on hand, including those he received from Leach, adds up to about 80 hours. So far, Gross has only managed to restore and digitally remaster a portion of the films, with screening time standing at about 30 hours.

Some of the films that have been fully edited have been made available on an English website created to host them.

There is also a plan to create a database of these films as an invaluable record of disappearing folk customs and folk craft.

Gross stresses that what he wants to convey is not only Leach’s message but also the reality of mingei, craftspeople and life that Leach wanted to show through his films.

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